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Why Water Rights Are Women's Rights

Having an ample supply of safe water is something most of us don't think much about. Turning on the kitchen tap or running a bath is usually an effortless decision. Yet, when we flush the toilet, we use as much water as most people in Kenya use in an entire day.

Imagine that day. You spend six hours fetching and hauling heavy loads of water across a dangerous expanse. Once you get the water home, you conserve and manage every drop to have enough for drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing the kids, and watering the vegetable garden that keeps your family from going hungry. Since the water is untreated, you never know what kind of microbes or pollution you and your family are drinking.

For many rural women, that imaginary day is every day. For others who live in cities, water is just as scarce and unsafe because of economic policies that reward pollution and price clean water out of reach. In total, 17 percent of the world's people lack access to safe water. This is a human rights abuse of staggering proportion -- threatening more than a billion people and undermining a range of other human rights, including rights to health, environmental sustainability, economic justice and peace.

Around the world, it is women and girls who are responsible for providing water to households. That division of labor makes water a critical women's human rights concern.

Water and Health

Every year, nearly 1.8 million people (90 percent of them children under five) die from diarrhea caused by dirty water. Typhoid, cholera, and other deadly diseases are also spread by contaminated water, bringing the death toll from water related diseases to a staggering 3.5 million people a year. In fact, unsafe drinking water is the source of 80 percent of disease worldwide and kills more children every year than wars, malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.

Without clean water, it's nearly impossible for people to maintain good hygiene for themselves and their children. Lack of personal hygiene contributes to the spread of infectious diseases and compromises people's dignity and confidence. Whether or not a community chronically lacks water, no mother wants to send her child to school with a dirty face.

The daily task of carrying water over distances is back-breaking work for women. In rural Africa, women commonly walk 10 kilometers a day to a water source and back -- and twice that distance in the dry season. Often, women carry loads of up to 50 lbs on the head, hip, or back. Over time, the strain can deform the spine and pelvis, causing extreme pain and disability. A more immediate worry for many women and girls is the threat of sexual attack as they venture far from home in search of water.

In the rural village of Umoja, Kenya, an 11-year-old girl is pregnant as a result of a rape that occurred while she was fetching water. The girl and her baby will be cared for by the women of Umoja, but in many communities, rape survivors are cast out and their children are permanently ostracized.

Tremendous health benefits are achieved when people gain access to even small quantities of clean water. Simple measures, like washing hands with soap and water, reduce the spread of deadly diarrhoeal diseases by more than 35 percent. Ensuring clean water for washing can also prevent trachoma, a leading cause of blindness.

The UN Millennium Development Goals call for reducing by half the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Achieving this target would mean more than 200, 000 fewer child deaths in 2015 and more than one million children's lives saved over the following decade. Across the world, children would gain another 272 million days of school, thanks to fewer episodes of diarrhea. And economic benefits of about $38 billion would accrue to some of the poorest countries. Financing these gains would cost about $10 billion --less than half of what rich countries spend each year on mineral water.

Water and Environmental Sustainability

Today, many women find that they must walk farther to fetch water as it becomes increasingly scarce. Only about 2.5 percent of the Earth's water is fresh and suitable for drinking. Climate change, pollution, and the unsustainable use of water for industry and factory farming are depleting this limited supply. In Peru, nearly all drinking water comes from glaciers that are melting fast and may be completely gone by 2015. Across Africa, all 667 major lakes are drying up. Lake Chad, once the third-largest lake in Africa, has shrunk by 90 percent, mainly because its waters have been diverted into canals. In Indonesia and Brazil, timber and biofuel plantations are monopolizing and depleting water sources. Around the world, industrial agriculture is contaminating groundwater with toxic pesticides.

These are serious problems, but they have clear solutions, including reclamation of polluted water, water conservation, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and government investment in water infrastructure. Where these measures have been implemented, they have worked well. The US Clean Water Act, for example, detoxified more than half of the country's polluted rivers and lakes (before the law was gutted by the Bush Administration). Organic farming is proving to be a reliable way to feed people and protect the planet. The problem is not that we lack solutions, but that we haven't yet achieved the political momentum to guarantee that our solutions are implemented.

Water and Peace

Increasingly, competition over scarce fresh water is sparking violent clashes between parched communities. The bloodshed in Darfur, for instance, is as much a "resource war" for water as an ethnic conflict. In the Middle East, the drive to control water is one of the less recognized objectives of Israel's occupation of the West Bank. On average, each Israeli settler there uses nine times as much water as each Palestinian.

Since water flows across scores of national boundaries, symptoms of our growing global water crisis -- including rivers that no longer reach the sea, sinking groundwater tables, and shrinking lakes -- threaten to cause new conflicts between countries. As former World Bank President Ismail Serageldin has said, "If the wars of the last century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water."

This is a chilling prediction, but not an inevitability. Humanity has a strong track record of peacefully sharing water. In fact, the world's first known peace treaty, signed over 4, 000 years ago in Mesopotamia (today's Iraq), was a water-use agreement. Now that fresh water supplies are more endangered than ever, the challenge is to build on that heritage of cooperative resource use and support policies that can promote an equitable distribution of this common global resource.

Water and Economic Justice

Though water scarcity is threatening ecosystems on every continent, the biggest problem is not that the world's water supply is literally running out, but that water is used unsustainably and unequally. Water needs vary from place to place, but a minimum threshold for daily use is about 20 liters a person. The average North American uses 600 liters of water a day. The average person in Africa uses six. Scarcity, then, is mainly the result of poverty and unequal access to resources.

For communities in places like Kenya, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, lack of water services is a direct result of government discrimination against poor communities and indigenous peoples. But cash-strapped governments themselves are pressured by international financial institutions such as the World Bank to privatize their water sources (meaning sell them to corporations) as a way to make money to pay back loans. Once corporations "own" a country's water, they sell it back to communities, often at unaffordable prices.

In the cities of the Global South, poor people pay the highest prices for water -- sometimes 10 times more than wealthier people living in the same city. Millions of families living in slums have no access to water at all. Until women in the Barcenas neighborhood of Guatemala City organized to install public water taps, they had to choose between spending 30 percent of their sweatshop earnings on bottled water or relying on water they knew to be contaminated by industrial pollution and sewage.

Clearly, those suffering the most from lack of water also lack the political voice needed to assert their right to water. This includes poor communities in general and women in particular. Therefore, resolving the world's water crisis requires a political mobilization by and for those most threatened by the crisis. This mobilization is already underway and important victories have been won, many in Latin America. In Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, activists have compelled private water corporations to relinquish control over municipal water systems. Uruguay now recognizes the public's right to water in its constitution. Porto Alegre, Brazil, has created a model public water utility that provides affordable and safe water to all residents.

Water as a Human Right

Access to water is a human right. Not only does it underpin the most basic of human rights -- people's right to life -- access to safe water is also essential to the enjoyment of all other human rights. But international standards don't reflect that reality. Because water is defined as a need instead of a right, control over this critical resource has largely been ceded to corporations. That means that human rights standards need to be changed. The United Nations must pass a water covenant that would commit governments to treat water as an entitlement, guaranteeing that every person has a secure, accessible and affordable supply of healthy water. Policies that are inadequate or unjust must be changed. We've done it before, and we can do it again and create a world with clean water for all.

By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Communications Director

August 5, 2008  / Africa / Kenya